James Christopher Frey was born September 12, 1969, in Cleveland, Ohio. Frey’s early life was spent in Ohio and Michigan. His father was a successful business executive, and the Freys were a financially comfortable family. After graduating high school in 1988, Frey attended Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where he was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. In 1993, at age 23, he entered Hazelden clinic for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. He spent six weeks there as a patient. Following this, Frey held a number of jobs, ranging from janitor to screenwriter. His screenplay for Kissing a Fool was made into a movie starring David Schwimmer in 1998. A Million Little Pieces, an account of his stay at Hazelden, was started in the late 1990s. To complete the book, Frey mortgaged his house and lived on the proceeds while he wrote. Frey claims that he initially tried to sell the book as a work of fiction, but seventeen publishers rejected it. The book, first published in May 2003, was classified by both Frey and the publisher (Random House) as a memoir, or a narrative taken from personal experience.
Early on, a handful of critics questioned the truthfulness of the book, but Frey’s claims of its veracity went largely uncontested. In 2005, talk show host and magazine publisher Oprah Winfrey selected A Million Little Pieces for her book club, bumping Eli Weisel’s Night for the December slot. Sales of Frey’s book shot into the multimillions, and Frey appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to speak about his experiences as an addict and his eventual rehabilitation. In January of 2006, the Smoking Gun (www.thesmokinggun.com), an investigative website owned by Court TV, began a search for a mugshot of Frey to put in their gallery and were surprised to find almost no records of Frey’s multistate criminal activities. Digging deeper, they uncovered one police report that had missed Frey’s attention—it detailed a major event described in the book, in which Frey, high on crack, hits a police car and almost starts a riot. The reality was that a slightly inebriated Frey ran the wheel of his car up onto a curb and was taken into custody in an extremely uneventful arrest. In the book, this is the crime that threatens to land Frey in maximum security prison for several years, until Leonard and Miles Davis, James’s closest friends at the clinic, work to have the sentence reduced to three months. The crime is more or less fiction, and the sentence is completely so. Frey’s actual jail time amounted to a few hours, and it occurred on the night of his arrest. With this information, related parts of the story were called into question.
Up to the point of the Smoking Gun’s investigation, Frey claimed the book was completely honest, and that he had only changed some names to protect the identities of the people involved. He also claimed that his publisher had contacted people portrayed in the book and verified what he had written. In interviews (including one for Barnes & Noble’s Meet the Writers program), Frey went as far as to describe his activities during the nonexistent three-month jail term, down to listing the books he read while whiling away time in his cell. Frey appeared on Larry King Live on January 11, 2006, to defend himself against the charges. He admitted some alterations but repeated that he stood by the “essential truth” of his book. Oprah Winfrey called the show while Frey was on the air and voiced her support. She would soon withdraw it.
Over the next few days, the case against Frey grew too overwhelming to ignore. Frey was called back to Oprah’s show along with his publisher, industry veteran Nan Talese, on January 26, 2006. The result was a blistering hour-long program, in which Frey finally admitted that he lied about some of the events. He did not recant his decision to label the book a memoir, and he still claims to have documentation to support much of the story. The controversy surrounding A Million Little Pieces has led some journalists and readers to call for strict fact-checking of all nonfiction books. Many supportive fans have touted its “essential truth,” a phrase used by Frey during his interview on Larry King’s show to denote the story’s emotional impact. Still others are simply wondering whether the book should be categorized as fiction or nonfiction. Random House, publisher of both paperback and hardcover copies of the book, has simply issued an apology. A publisher’s note and an author’s note will appear in all new printings. Frey’s follow-up to A Million Little Pieces, My Friend Leonard, starts on the eighty-seventh day of his fabricated ninety-day stay in jail and is also billed as a memoir. It contains a note to the reader explaining that some elements of his story “have been changed” for the book
Within a month of Frey’s public outing at the Smoking Gun, LA Weekly uncovered a bizarre tale of a gay erotica writer masquerading as a Navajo writer. That writer, Tim Barrus, had been writing as “Nasdijj” since 1999 and had won numerous awards for his memoirs. Novelist JT LeRoy, presumed to be a young man who wrote gritty novels based on his former life as a male prostitute, was revealed to be the creation of middle-aged female rock musician and her husband. “LeRoy” went many steps further in the ruse, including using a physical stand-in for readings. These findings shook the public’s confidence in the publishing industry even more so. But A Million Little Pieces, with its Oprah seal and widespread news coverage, remained at the center of the debate. The scope of the discussion ranged from the sublime to the extreme. Some commentators focused on the specific definition of the word memoir. Several widened the topic to ask if Frey’s actions are symptomatic of a larger problem: the erosion of the notion of truth in modern American society and politics.